“P.E. - a group, a crew, not singular…” Nestled in the middle of the third verse of Public Enemy’s seminal 1987 single “Rebel Without A Pause” is the key to the power and the longevity of the Long Island-based collective. Today, 25 years later, the group is enjoying their biggest U.K. hit single and in the midst of releasing a pair of powerful new albums, Most Of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear On No Stamp and The Evil Empire Of Everything.
From the start, Public Enemy’s potent mix of Chuck D’s rhymes, Flavor Flav’s hype, Terminator X/DJ Lord’s turntablism, The Bomb Squad’s production and Professor Griff’s ever-present S1W security detail stood out in a hip hop world full of boasts and beefs. Their lyrical references drew from international politics, ideology and intellectual analysis as much as it did from popular culture. Their beats changed the style of a genre, and their influence on music as a whole was recognized this week with a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Nomination.
Buzzine’s Stefan Goldby sat down with Chuck D shortly before his recent keynote appearance at The San Diego Music Thing 2012 to talk about the current state of hip hop and the importance of collaboration, distribution and artistic control...
Stefan Goldby: It has been twenty-five years since the release of Public Enemy’s debut album, but we are also poised on the eve of the release of a new P.E. record: What do you think is the biggest difference between the artist that recorded Yo! Bum Rush the Show and the one sitting here today?
CD: Other than 25 years in silver and black, as the Raiders go? [Smiles] The biggest difference is our worldwide perspective, because one of the initial goals of Public Enemy - and also myself in 1987 was to use a passport, get out of America, see the world, get a world story to bring back via hip hop or rap music to people, and use culture by upgrading hip hop or rap music to it.
SG: You've strived artistically to never repeat yourself, to take musical steps forward with every P.E. release: This time around, a new twist is two separate albums, both released in quick succession: When it came to making this pair of new records, did you have a specific musical goal in mind heading in the studio?
CD: No goals in mind musically other than to collaborate with a lot of different people's tastes and try to direct it into… not their music, but to see if the words can actually ride them into a common point. The difference between when we were the Bomb Squad and five guys or four guys in a room manning different aspects of production… what has happened is that technology has metastasized into so many different areas of technology and artist and musicmaker and writer, all coming into one, splintering all over the musical map. You might find one person who might man a certain array of equipment that comes up with their own signature sound arrangement and idea. So instead of four guys in a room, it's more like a million guys across the sonic terrain and digital map…
My job was to see how many of these different musical conversations could I gel into a common direction, which is called ‘Public Enemy in 2012’. Which means that bridging it across two albums is one statement, but also it was a statement for SPITDigital.com, which happened to be our step into the aggregation field, which we tried to do for the last 10 years and really for the last 3 years in a more aggressive way. Because we understood very early on, that the configuration flip from CDs into digital downloads would be rather quick, rather fast, and also in a few areas of distribution.
So SPITdigital has become just as much a part of the distribution conversation as the two albums by Public Enemy - making music for me personally. That's the biggest difference from 25 years ago, also: I'm actually involved into not only understanding and comprehending the whole total process, but I'm also involved in helping create some of the process at that, so that's been real big for me.
SG: You jumped into the digital music space really early on…
CD: …as a necessity…
SG: … and you just said that SPITdigital is the summation of many different things: What is the SPITdigital mission?
CD: The mission is to be the next-level aggregator of moving digital music into digital stores that exist, into digital areas that exist, to be linked into the marketplace where people could actually donate to an artist's wellbeing. The goal is also to make these artists labels themselves, so in 2013, I'm looking forward to having our ‘one million-label march’ [Smiles]. That's very important, because we provide artists with label tools, and we're saying the step for our artists to be a label is really a short one in the digital space. It's the comprehension of knowing what you're doing, where you're putting your music, and how to treat what you receive that comes in. It's a different model from, “We have batches of this music and we're sending it out there: We don't know what's coming back, we don't know who it's going to, but we have these numbers in mind…”
Our thing is always, like Bootsy and James have dealt with, the ‘One’ - as far as on the receiving end, deal with one person at a time. Whether you're on the delivery end of satisfaction, whether you're in the area where they consume what you do… one person at a time, and get into the inner core in the delivery of art, because you're talking about the delivery of art… digital-wise, it transcends just music, it's aspects of point of view. It could be in the area of digital books, it could be in the area of artwork. Stepping in those bounds is just like being able to say, "Look, man. Just comprehend the space that you're in..."
What's thrown out of the window is areas that meant nothing to an artist, like, "Okay, we're not going to give you everything that you deserve, because we have to deduct because of damaged goods." Warehousing, you know, "What the hell?! You’re warehousing 13,000 other pieces of somebody else's crap, and now you're telling me that that's a cost to be in there?" Shipping, receiving, manufacturing. "Okay, we manufactured these goods, so we're charging them to you because the plastic company that we dealt with cost ‘x’ amount. So, after all these deductions, then we're going to deal with you on a royalty basis…"
The digital world is trying to flip the philosophy of telling people to deal on an equity basis. That's a hard conversation in 2010, a little bit clearer in 2012, probably crystal clear in 2015, but by that time, all the usual suspects are looking to flood in and take advantage of an artist's ignorance so they can say, "Hey, we'll do it for you." A lot of people are online now; they don't know how they got there. That's the biggest reason why SPITdigital happened to be a goal of ours.
SG: To allow the artist to retain the control…
CD: Ask the average artist, “How did I get into iTunes?” or “How did I get onto Spotify?”… and they... [shrugs] Now, you have D.I.Y. artists. You have lowercase d.i.y., and you have uppercase D.I.Y. - there's a difference between the two. Usually, a lowercase d.i.y. understands every aspect, so they might have signed up through TuneCore in 2007, where I was instrumental helping them, and then before that, The Orchard in 2004, I was instrumental in helping them. Never got involved with CD Baby, but CD Baby went and acquired Disc Makers in Philly; became large aggregator… even MySpace became an aggregator, but were people trustworthy? Were they trusting that system as much… it’s a high area of debate. SPITdigital, we felt that being the urban-centric, urban-leaning… I hate the term ‘urban’ too, because it's just a terrible term. Urban just means that it can use a whole bunch of faces of color and not be accountable to it…
SG: So you have a chance to coin a new phrase - one that we can move forward with…
CD: I’ve been looking. I'm good at finding words that fit! Maybe ‘diverse’?
SG: So you are helping other artists, as well as yourself get their art out into the world, but that still has to start with a piece of art worth sharing…
CD: … Of course…
SG: … so when it comes to the pair of new Public Enemy albums at the center of all your current endeavors, how do you sum them up? Is it primarily about the collaborations that you mentioned? Most Of My Heroes… and Evil Empire… certainly boast a long list of interesting collaborations, but what is it in your mind that makes this pair of releases different and unique?
CD: What makes them different and unique is that, number one; I've said it publicly that they're twins, fraternal and identical… they'll talk to each other about the times that we're in, and you're invited to listen in! As far as what makes them different lyrically, it is the times that we live in.
Mostly, I'm going to write something, you know, it's always going to be relevant to time, history, and it's going to be relevant to the times we live in, with a little bit of a sprinkling of what I foresee in the future. That always is going to be the case, but every time it's different, so that's what changes.
What happens to be the sound of choice might change in some different aspects. On the second album, "Beyond Treyvon", that song is actually sons of members of Public Enemy: Professor Griff's two sons, Brother James Norman's son, and also Brother Drew's son… the four of them got together and kind of rhymed along with me and Griff on this song called "Beyond Treyvon".
You have young, black males who are…early 20's… and also teenagers. I think Griff's younger son is a teenager… and they're actually speaking from their head about what's going on and the plight of the young, black male in 2012. There is still a reason to be fearful. It ain't coming from us, but it's coming from their mouths with our guidance, so that might be unprecedented in certain ways.
There's songs like "Everything", which I think is probably the boldest record I've done! It's probably the most aesthetically different record I've done. When Kanye West and Jay-Z came out with "Otis" last year, I was trying to figure out, other than the sample, what was ‘Otis’ about it? The rapper in me just said, "If you want to actually be Otis, you should say this…" and I wrote a little piece called "Notice (K-N-O-W-T-H-I-S)”, but then I took it one step further with this song "Everything." I was, like, "What if Otis Redding was alive today and he actually could rhyme: What would he sound like?"
First of all, what he would say… I gave the topic that everything is simple. People that think they have it all, if they really look closely down to their bone marrow, they might realize that they really don't have much. People that feel like they don't have anything, if they really look at the important things in life, they might realize they have everything…
The story of that song will actually even transcend the art of the sonics itself, because the person who is going to do the record cover, the CD cover, and also he's going to do the digital cover that will be online, he's suffered from muscular dystrophy and doesn't have use of his hands, feet, or his lungs. He sits in a hospital and he actually can manipulate a computer mouse, and he's working on the single artwork right now…
So he's the story, and he'll tell you quickly that you if feel like you have nothing... he has to breathe and talk through a respirator. He's a young guy, 32 years old… Dwayne Farrar… I paid visits to him and I just thought that since he does a lot of art on his computer, he would be a perfect person to add into this. I didn't want to be exploiting the situation, but he sits there every day. He can't go out unless he has a person actually take him out… part of the hospital staff. They had cutbacks, so he doesn't see outside unless he has a person that's taking him and his oxygen tank.
So yeah, you think you've got it bad, you think you got nothing… the fact is that Dwayne just wishes he can walk down the street, breathe on his own, and once again regain use of his hands, feet, and his life. I put all that into a song, and I don't care if there's another song on that record that anybody else cares about or likes… I never did albums to try to please people, either.
That's the thing that I think rap artists should always stick to… instead of getting on your knees and trying to please your contract, trying to please your radio station… I would say, ‘Please your audience’, but to be at a certain level in the States on a ‘pop’ level, you got to please your radio station or your television network - which is usually Viacom in this country. Come up to spec and up to codes and please your staff that actually puts your music through the major company. Please them before you actually even can get to your audience.
That's what got me to the internet in the first place. That's what got me leaving Universal and Def Jam in 1998… Public Enemy were the first group to walk away from a million-dollar contract and go and swim into the www, full steam ahead. Yeah, it wasn't an easy dive, but it was away from something that usually had control of that big contract anyway. Walking away from a million-dollar contract is easy when it's really not a million dollars that you can control. That was easy. That was easy in 1998.
Here in 2012, there's a lot of barking and a lot of, "Oh, here they go again - I thought they were dead," as far as the major structures of what we had. A song that we made five years ago became a Top Five record in the UK from the Paralympics – so it wasn't because of us, but it was because another power structure outside the realm of music saw something that was fitting: It's happened twice for us.
In 1989, Spike Lee put "Fight the Power” in Do the Right Thing and propelled the record to a different zone. We didn't necessarily ask radio for anything, didn't ask MTV for anything, but it came back and had to be respected by radio and video. The same thing happened with "Harder Than You Think"…
SG: You have always been acutely aware of the power and role of the media in entertainment, and have dealt directly with that. Pubic Enemy had Harry Allen as your official in-house ‘media assassin’ and went so far as to even name-check him on record. Here in 2012, the media has fragmented in many ways because of the web, but in other ways, the power is consolidated - you mentioned Viacom… so do you think, for an artist, that things have got better or got worse in terms of being able to get a message with weight, with meaning, out into the world today, compared to the way it was when you began trying to do just that back in the late '80s?
CD: It's better and worse, because more people have become victim to believing the hype or believing that there's a better way in art, and that what's signed and what's anointed is the best, and everything climbing to get there is worse. It's better because an artist can go outside their realm and use the whole world as their field - which is the purpose of culture anyway; bringing human beings together under one roof and one accord and realizing that this could be a great cultural exchange.
I mean, come on. It's already biased in the West, especially in this country where they don't pay much attention, especially I'm talking about for hip-hop and rap music and black music - they pay little attention here to anything that happens internationally. There's hip-hop artists that have been doing it for the last 30 years: What gets their acknowledgement? If you don't know where Indonesia is and you don't care, then how much are you going to listen to an Indonesian artist like MV talking about their political situation? "Oh, I don't want to hear it because I don't know what they're saying"… But then when you say things like, "Well, it's not important to say something important", [Laughs] then you're saying that they're not saying anything, but you're saying that you want to hear something…? [Laughs]
SG: If the world is more messed up than ever, then surely it is more in need of insight and clarification and meaning through arts than ever before. And yet pop music is king, and meaning is hard to find. Which is not unlike the state of hip hop when Public Enemy exploded onto the scene and helped change the perception of what hip hop could be - not just Public Enemy alone, but within a group of artists that opened up the hip hop world. How do you feel about the musical house that you helped to build and the state of hip hop today?
CD: Too many individuals - you said it right there with the question – there’s like, not enough groups. It was always a group effort. Also, it was always a group effort in saying that I'm going to put in and then wait to see what I receive. Not like I'm only going to put in what I think… I really want this, so I want to put in to get that. You had to do it with a group of people who actually covered the elements in order to rock a party in the first place. In order to rock a record, you had to get involved with the elements of productions and other vocalists and maybe singers, so it was always a group effort.
When it turned into a "my, my, my; this is what I want to get" - all you did was reflect the greed at the top. "I ain't going to get jerked on this contract. F. that." F. being a group because it means you got to split a dollar instead of taking a whole dollar home." It really capsized the art form from being self-sufficient, which is different, even if you talk about the flimsiest of business situations with a band, a band's still got to play together. When you catch them live, they've still got to get down together.
The drummer got to get down with the guitar player, got to get down with the bass player. If we have no bass, we have no guitar, the vocalist got to get down with somebody… if there's a DJ, you got to be DJ/MC, drum machine/MC, or no vocalist/drum machine/audience. It still is a collaborative thing. A guy with a drum machine like Skrillex is actually looked upon as maybe how James Taylor is looked upon when he has one guitar and just... [an audience]. That's a different, individual thing to an audience.
The EDC guys, they've destroyed hip hop, as far as moving to the next level, because they understood that the art form has to seriously be taken care of with the audience. Before, nothing would be better than an MC and a DJ that worked together. But once the MC drifted off into, "Forget the DJ, I'm a recording artist," and as the years went on they said less and less. Then the MC drifted to an island of no return and the DJ drifted off to another area. The MC, the DJ, and hip-hop were here [moves hands far apart] when they used to work together and create such a solid force.
Public Enemy… we're built around that; musicians, and people who are able to still involve ourselves into putting in instead of getting out. That has hurt hip-hop drastically, because once an island of MC’s individualized themselves just to become like a ploy of marketing from a big company, it's the point of no return… It’s, “How do we market this MC who is just kicking about himself but he's not trying to get too deep?” And that's okay, but after awhile it becomes a thing where, "Okay, we can get six thousand guys to do that." That's where it hurts, where you really don't set a difference between the audience and the stage. "I could do that" - once that starts figuring into it, it's done!
If people felt that they could do the same thing in football, in basketball, and sports that the people on the field do, how much in awe are they going to be? How much of the 'awe' is going to be in 'audience'? I always say you should spell your audience by A-W-E first instead of A-U. Leave them shaking their head, like, "Wow". Make them, number one, say, "I can't do that"…
That's the biggest difference between a group and an individual. An individual that comes in to see the performance of a group, they can't do what a group can do. Even if the artists or the players are sub par, when they all play together it's the sum of the parts that kick ass. That's what an individual can't do. They might say, "Oh, I can get the lead singer," or, "I can play better bass than that bass player," or, "I can DJ better than that," but you can't be them, so you've got to put your unit together in the hopes that it beats that s***…
SG: Is it that collective effort, that collaborative effort what's kept it interesting for you for 25 years?
CD: Of course!
SG: Flav, you, Griff, and all these contrasting collaborators, they're so different and yet when they do all come together…
CD: …They're the greatest group on earth - not because I said so; not because of me. I'm the least talented of my guys, not by far, but I'm the least talented of my guys. Every single one of those guys could kick ass, man, and it ain't no myth: Those guys are good. From Flava, to first Terminator and now DJ Lord for the last 15 years… those guys are the best at what they do. There's no other hype man - Flava invented the role. DJ Lord is a world-class turntablist. What Griff and the S1’s have done in their own space, they haven't really been duplicated. People have called them dancers and all that, but it really hasn't been that. And as far as the Bomb Squad; Hank Shocklee, Keith Shocklee, and Eric Sadler… what they've done is they still transcended on, but what they created along with yours truly, is something that people can take off to the next level.
My guys are truly the best that there have ever been. The difference is, is that we've always been a collective. It was a collective even if we created collectives that offshoot. It was never that one-man thing. That one-man thing made a lot of money for a lot of guys. "Oh, yeah. This guy, Dre... This is the one-man wonder." And the individual soloist, "Oh, Jay-Z," you know, "soloist..."
They've made a lot of money, but you also got to make up in your mind… with no help; media help, radio help… you say all the wrong things, which makes America go "yay!" How are you going to make an impact that's still going to be heard without the help of people kissing your ass?
We've never asked to be popular. That was probably the thing about P.E. - never kissed some ass so we could be #1. Yeah, you're thankful for it, like the Paralympics, how they chose it: Yes, thank you. Salute! The same thing with Spike: Good friend, great peer - thanks, thanks. This is their ideas. This is our art…
Public Enemy’s pair of new albums ‘Most Of My Heroes Don’t Appear On No Stamp’ and ‘The Evil Empire Of Everything’ are out now as digital downloads via Enemy Records/SPITdigital.
Both albums will be in stores as physical products on November 6, 2012.